I Hate Indiana Jones: Day 45

Day 45: Indiana Jones and the Absence of a Good Henchman

When talking about the Indiana Jones franchise the villains tend to get a lot of attention and rightfully so. The first film's 1-2 punch of Belloq and Toht makes for one of the greatest villain combinations of all time, and while Mola Ram doesn't get a lot of screen time in Temple of Doom, it doesn't stop him from being memorably menacing. By comparison, the lack of any quality or even noteworthy villains in Last Crusade is yet another strike that film has against it. As wonderful as those central villains are, though, in praising them we can wind up overlooking the smaller characters that made the film's action sequences so compelling: the henchmen.

Specifically I'm speaking of the three henchmen played by one actor across two films. The actor/stuntman's name is Pat Roach, and he was former British wrestler who cut an imposing figure and could sell a punch like nobody's business. In Raiders of the Lost Ark he portrayed both the giant sherpa who wrestles with Indiana Jones in Marion's bar and the Nazi mechanic who has an unfortunate run in with the flying wing's propeller. He returned for Temple of Doom to don offensive brownface once more as the giant thugee guard who forces Indiana Jones to drink blood and enter the thugee black sleep.

Each one of those characters gets a fantastic fight scene and while it would be esay to credit those scenes' success to the fact that they all featured the same skilled stuntman, but it's actually far more complex than that. A combination of writing, direction and performance combined to create fight scenes in which the person beating up Indiana Jones isn't just a large thug, but rather an actual character the audience can understand.

Starting with the Raiders of the Lost Ark, think about the beautiful moment with the Sherpa in the bar as he and Indiana Jones wrestle over Indy's pistol. Bored of watching them struggle, Toht orders one of the Nazis to shoot both of which his MP40. Harrison and the Sherpa are shocked for a moment, but then immediately bond over their imminent danger and team-up just long enough to pump the Nazi full of holes before going back to fighting one another. It's a perfect moment where an otherwise completely throwaway henchmen character acknowledges the fact that he's a real person who values his own life, and is more than willing to compromise his goals if it means preserving his own life. At least for a few minutes, anyways.

The fight with the mechanic is just as interesting in a different way. Just as with the Sherpa, this character has essentially no dialogue, bu in the brief seconds we see the character the audience gets to know him a little. Demonstrating through body language alone, were introduced to a character who absolutely loves to fight. Who, based on his fighting style, was probably an amateur boxer at some point in his past. He's clearly bored being stuck out in the desert maintaining vehicles, and so the second he sees a chance to beat someone up, he tries to make the fight last as long as he possibly can. He could finish Indy off at any point in the fight, yet every time he knocks Harrison down, the mechanic demands that he get back up and continue the fight in a fair manner. That's what makes his end so hilariously ironic - it's his utter focus on the fight that keeps him from noticing the propeller closing in on him.

Probably the most affecting of Pat Roach's appearances in the Indiana Jones films is his turn as the giant thugee, better known as the man who gets pulled into the rock crusher. That's another great moment of cameraderie - Harrison Ford is desperately fighting for his life against a man twice his size, but when the guard's belt gets caught in the crusher the dynamic instantly turns. Indy goes from battling the guard to desperately trying to save him. It is a wonderful moment of horror dropped in at the end of that fight, as the audience is shown that no matter how awful someone might have been, absolutely no one deserves to die like that.

So what is there to compare in the Valley of the Crystal Skull? Like last Crusade before it, absolutely nothing. Oh, there's still a fight scene - in fact two of them against the same large henchman, but the henchman himself is so utterly lacking in personality that the two fights might as well have been against different people. What makes the whole situation all the more egregiously awful is the Indiana Jones doesn't even win the fights in an Indiana Jones kind of way. There's no luck, no cleverness, no trickery, absolutely nothing special about these fights. Indiana Jones just wins. Two fights against a man thirty years younger and likely twice as strong.

At least in the first fight Indiana Jones having a chance makes a modicum of sense. The fight starts with Indiana Jones knocking the commie off of a platform and through plate glass window. Conceivably this could have weakened the younger man enough that Indiana Jones would've had a fighting chance. Even that slight sliver of plausibility goes right out the window at the fight's resolution, which has both Harrison and the Commie clinging to the front of a Rocket sled pulling three Gs as it blasts out of a secret tunnel. Indy wins the fight not through cleverness or treachery, but rather because a man in his late 50s manages to effectively resist the force of being strapped to the front of a rocket while a highly trained and tough as nails Russian soldier 30 years his junior does not. I know the entire point of the Indiana Jones character is that he's a little tougher than the average person of his build, but there's a line and this is well across it.

Their second battle is even worse from a filmmaking standpoint, because we're left with absolutely no explanation as to how Indy could've possibly won the fight. He just does. The two men engage in fisticuffs in a miniature arena created by a sea of flesh eating ants. Despite the communist soldier being Indy's physical superior in every conceivable way he loses a fair one-on-one fistfight. It's not like India has the help of the ants or the crystal skull or even John hurt who was sitting right there the whole time. Indy winning this fight is the equivalent of Rocky Balboa beating Ivan Drago without the spirit of American jingoism backing him up.

The whole thing is rendered all the more unpleasant by the fact that the filmmakers decided to wrap up the fight with a gross-out scene intended to remind viewers of the big henchmen fights from Raiders and Temple. The main difference is that while the gruesome resolutions of those fights were left tastefully off camera and for the most part out of Indy's direct control, this one is presented in in the middle of the frame in living Technicolor. It's also surprisingly mean-spirited.

At the end of the flight Indy has thoroughly beaten up the giant Russian. Once the fight is, for all intents and purposes, over, Harrison delivers a coup de grace knocking the Russian back into the sea of swarming ants, causing him to be pulled, alive and screaming, into their giant anthill, for the 'worse-than-death' fate of being devoured alive. Just to be absolutely clear, Indiana Jones apparently does this on purpose.

Compare this to his other fights. Having the mechanic get chopped up by the propeller blades is the only thing that save's Indy's life. Things aren't looking so good in the fight with the thugee guard when he's dragged into the rock crusher, but despite Indy's life being in imminent danger, his first instinct is to try to help his opponent. In Crystal Skull, Indy has already won the fight, but rather than just let the Commie slump to the ground, beaten and broken, he elects to feed him to a swarm of carnivorous ants.

Does that seem just the least bit out of character to anyone else?

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